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“You’ve changed,” accused the man who stood in the shadow-filled doorway of Viva Conrad’s office.
She gripped her pen. Otherwise, she didn’t move a muscle. If anything, she stopped breathing for several long seconds.
Viva recognized his voice. She couldn’t forget it if she tried. And she had tried, but the resonant sound had returned time and again to haunt her dreams. It still played a part in every fantasy she’d ever had of what might have been, had Fate not stepped in and threatened all that she held dear.
“It’s taken me quite some time to find you. I’m not leaving until we’ve talked, so don’t ignore me.”
Ignore Spencer Hammond?
Not even remotely possible, Viva realized. He would be a part of the fabric of her thoughts, her heart, and her life until she drew her last breath.
Lifting her gaze from the spreadsheets that littered the top of her desk, she focused on him. She inhaled and exhaled shallowly. Her heart raced, and her pulse galloped. She’d expected him, but she realized now that she wasn’t at all prepared to deal with him.
He walked into her office, his stride and bearing a testament to his self-confidence. Spencer Hammond, her longtime friend and trusted confidant until the nightmare had begun and she had done the unforgivable.
She couldn’t look away from him. He reminded her of all she’d lost. And he worried her, because he could be utterly relentless when he wanted something.
Giving him what he wanted in this instance, she knew, meant she would be jeopardizing his life and the life of his college-age daughter. She refused to do that, although she was thwarting justice and protecting a murderer with her silence. What an unholy mess!
“I thought I knew you. Shows you just how wrong a person can be, doesn’t it?” he asked, the low syrupy tones of his Kentucky accent reminding her of home and her heritage.
His expression assured her that he didn’t really expect a reply. She didn’t supply one. She couldn’t. She wanted to weep. Instead, she managed to maintain her composure under his intense scrutiny.
“Tommy’s funeral was well attended.”
She winced at the censure in his tone, his reference to her late uncle denting her façade of self-control.
“Nothing to say, Viva? No pretense of regret? Perhaps ‘I just didn’t give a damn’ would be a more honest response than ‘I’m sorry, I just couldn’t squeeze the event onto my busy social calendar’ or ‘I couldn’t get a flight home.’”
“Uncle Tommy is at peace now, Spence.” Viva spoke softly, her own Kentucky roots evident in the sultry cadence of her voice. “And he’s no longer in pain.”
“He’s dead, God damn it, and he died alone.”
She searched his rugged features, and she saw the toll the last fourteen months had taken on him. “Nothing will bring him back, but he didn’t die alone, Spence, because you were with him. We both know you weren’t just his business partner. You were his closest friend.”
“Why weren’t you there, especially near the end?”
She met his gaze. She remained mute by choice.
“Why, Viva? After all he did for you, how could you turn your back on him when he needed you the most?”
She straightened in her chair, refusing to cave in to the emotions crashing over her like a tidal wave bent on total devastation. The regret she felt at not being at Tommy’s bedside dominated her every waking thought.
“I don’t owe you an explanation for the choices I’ve made, Spence. Not now. Not ever.”
“You owed Tommy,” he countered, his voice rife with contempt.
She met his gaze, but she refused to defend herself further. She was already struggling in her defense of Spence and his daughter by allowing herself to be manipulated by the death merchant responsible for killing Michael Hammond, Spence’s stepbrother and her former fiancé.
To guarantee Spence and Emily’s survival, she’d agreed to have no contact with Spence. She’d abandoned her home, her life, and everyone who truly mattered to her. In effect, she’d given up everything she’d adored, and she’d started a new life in relative anonymity in San Diego fourteen months earlier. No other choice.
“Tommy took you in when your folks died. He gave you a loving home, and he raised you in the lap of luxury like some princess in training for a palace.”
“He was my uncle, and he loved me,” Viva whispered. “And he also understood my decisions and choices.”
“And now he’s left you the bulk of his estate.”
Viva nodded warily, aware of the myriad pitfalls of having this conversation with Spence. She took another steadying breath.
“I will not allow you to run away again,” he warned.
She sank back in her chair, her fingers knotted in her lap as she attempted to project a calm she did not feel. Would probably never feel.
“I’m not planning any trips, Spence. I have a life here in San Diego, in case you hadn’t noticed. And, for the record, you do not have the right to give me orders. Not now. Not ever.”
He frowned at her. “I’ve noticed a hell of a lot, Viva. I noticed Michael’s so-called suicide fourteen months ago. I noticed that my mentor and partner was dying, because his heart couldn’t sustain his body any longer. And I definitely noticed the absence of the one person those two men had in common, the woman they both adored. Trust me when I tell you that I noticed,” he finished in a hard voice.
Something snapped inside of her. “Don’t try to make a gift of your bitterness, Spence, and don’t ever make the mistake of judging me. I won’t tolerate that kind of behavior, not even from you.”
He approached her desk, leaned down, and braced his powerful upper body with his hands as he glared at her. “You fell off the world without a single word of explanation to anyone. You really are a piece of work, aren’t you?”
“Get out of my office,” she ordered.
She pushed up to her feet. She resented his intimidation tactics almost as much as she longed to throw herself into his arms and plead for comfort in the wake of more than a year of isolation and loneliness. “Get out now, Spence. We have nothing to talk about. Any communication between us can be handled by attorneys.”
He straightened, his narrowed gaze unrevealing as he watched her.
Viva walked to the bank of windows on the far side of her office, turning her back on him. The panorama of twinkling city lights and the advancing bank of coastal fog sweeping in from the ocean outlined her rigid posture and revealed the control she exerted over her emotions.